Prof Nic Cheeseman looks at the options for the new government, assesses the pros and cons of elections versus some form of power sharing, and discusses the prospects for democratic strengthening.
Zimbabwe has a new leader. Robert Mugabe is out. His former ally turned rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is in. What now?
After ecstatic celebrations to mark Mugabe’s resignation thoughts have began to turn to what comes next. Mugabe may have exited the political scene, but it remains dominated by the same political party – Zanu-PF – that sustained his rule.
Moreover, the country’s president-elect, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is hardly a breath of fresh air. Having held a series of cabinet positions under Mugabe, and served as First Vice President between December 2014 and his sacking in November 2017, he looks more like a force for continuity than change.
As a result, talk in Harare quickly turned to what kind of leader Mnangagwa will be, and the system of government that would best serve ordinary Zimbabweans.
The fork in the road
My conversations with people on the streets of the capital, Harare, about the political system the country needs suggests that two distinct camps are emerging: those who want elections to be held as soon as possible, and those who say the polls should be postponed and a transitional government established.
Both of these options have genuine “pros” but also strong “cons”. As is so often the case, there is no perfect answer that solves all problems.
It is understandable that many Zimbabweans want a period of calm and orderly government after the twists and turns of recent weeks, and believe that it would be better to form an inclusive government that would feature representatives of all of the main political parties – a kind of power sharing in all but name.
Even though I have consistently argued in favour of the value of democracy and elections in Africa, I have to admit that the “transitioners” have some viable arguments.
The most obvious is that a period of stability and more consensual government might facilitate much needed reform of the economy and also the wider political and legal system. After all, rival parties are unlikely to come to agreement on these issues if they are immediately thrust into an election campaign.
The “transitioners” also have a point when it comes to democracy. Few people in Zimbabwe believe that it’s possible for elections to be free and fair if they are held between July and August next year, as currently scheduled. Given this, and the current divisions within the opposition, a rush to elections is likely to result in a convincing victory for Zanu-PF under problematic circumstances.
A transitional arrangement would allow for much needed electoral reforms to be put in place, creating the potential for a better quality process and a more consensual outcome later on.
Testing the Crocodile
But there is also another camp that wants to see Mnangagwa, popularly known as The Crocodile, to face an election as soon as possible.
Just like their counterparts in the “transitioner” camp, “electioneers”, have some strong arguments. Whatever one wants to call Mnangagwa’s rise to power – from a coup to an internal party squabble – it is clear that it has not been a high quality democratic transition. And while it is clear that the overthrow of Mugabe was hugely popular, we don’t know if the same applies to a Mnangagwa presidency. An election would settle that question.
It would also give the new government a popular mandate to undertake economic reforms, whoever wins power. This could be important to the success of the reform project, because things are likely to get worse before they get better, and the country’s economic medicine may prove to be a bitter pill to swallow.
Holding elections would also do one thing that postponing them will not; it will test the commitment of the new government to democratic norms and values from the get-go. One of the main reasons that Zimbabwean elections have been poor quality is that Zanu-PF and the military have intervened to make sure this was the case. As another friend put it, “If they are really committed to doing the right thing, they can do it right away and the elections will not be too bad”.
Learning from the past
“Electioneers” are also motivated by scepticism that an inclusive transitional government would get much done. Both Zimbabwe and Kenya have had power-sharing governments in the recent past, and while they both introduced new constitutions they also saw high levels of corruption and limited security sector reform. They also both led to elections that were denounced by opposition parties as being unfree and unfair.
It’s fair to ask: why would it be different this time?
The question is particularly pertinent given the current composition of parliament. Because Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change boycotted a series of by-elections on the basis that they would not be free and fair, it has lost many of the seats it won in 2013. As a result, any transitional arrangement that deferred elections and “froze” the current parliament for the next three years would have a big legislative advantage to Zanu-PF.
It is also important to keep in mind that economics cannot be divorced from politics: Zimbabwe’s current economic difficulties stem precisely from an unaccountable political framework that ignored the interests of the people. Given that recent events have emboldened the military and given them an even stronger voice within government, this is a pressing concern.
Deferring electoral reforms in order to focus on economic recovery may therefore prove to be a self defeating strategy.
Ultimately, the form of government that evolves in Zimbabwe will not be a product of popular dialogue. One of the distinctive features of this process is that for the most part it has been conducted behind closed doors by a small elite.
Don’t be fooled by the pictures of tens of thousands of people marching on Saturday – all sides have invoked popular support, but none have actually encouraged ordinary people to say what they want, or given them a seat at the table. This is a worrying sign if strengthening democracy is the long-term goal.
Recent public statements by the main parties at the time of going to press suggests that they are not converging on an interim administration, and so the “electioneers” may get their wish. That could still change because talks are ongoing and both sides would gain something from a delay. But if it doesn’t the people will be able to have their say on how they want their country to be run.
Of course, voting will not actually equate to “having a say” unless the country’s new leader follows through on his promise to build a “new democracy”, and the ruling party can kick the habit of a lifetime. Watch this space.